TV shows like “Oil, Sweat and Rigs,” “Ice Road Truckers” and “Deadliest Catch” combine robust masculinity with the best of Martha Stewart voyeuristic “do-it-yourself” television. But if you’re the type who wants to do more than just watch and actually dive into the testosterone pool without fear of potential death, then sharpen your hatchet, pull out your knives and be the first on your block to sign up for a “whole animal utilization” class.
Extreme butcher Ryan Farr is a classically trained chef who left his position at a Michelin Star-rated restaurant to follow his passion for carving carcasses. He teaches weekend warriors - and warrior princesses - how to take apart animals only by hand. He’s strictly artisanal. “How,” he asks rhetorically, “can we butcher this animal to capture all the flavor?”
Some people’s irrational exuberance about “farm-to-table” consumption often translates into a mind-numbing frenzy of raw milk cheese and heirloom tomato minutia that makes your ears bleed. But when that farm-to-table food has a face, well, enthusiasm wanes. Food with faces is what Farr, a.k.a. “The Meat Whisperer” is most passionate about. He wants you to chop off, slice off and share in his obsession for cuts like “flap meats,” i.e. flank, hanger, flap and skirt steaks cut from the cow’s flank which are among the most flavorful if less tender of cuts.
“When I see a steak on a menu I start doing the math,” he says. A 1300-pound animal yields 650 pounds of meat “and all I see is this one-and-a-half pound steak. That bums me out. That’s less than one-percent of what that animal is all about.” He relishes the artistry involved in extracting difficult-to-gets-to cuts only by hand. “I don’t use a band saw,” he explains. He steers clear from the traditional cutting charts. “I do every animal differently depending on where I feel it should be cut it and how I would cook it,” he says. Farr concentrates on cooking the animal as well as apportioning it.
Farr and his wife Cesalee, founded San Francisco’s 4505 Meats so he could express his love for all things meat. There he makes the sausages, the bacon-studded hotdogs, and teaches whole animal butchery. The Whole Beef Class ($650) lasts nine hours, provides lunch and teaches students (only five) how to break down an entire steer. Each student goes home with one-hundred-plus pounds of local, grass-fed, Rib Eye, Flintstone Chop, Filet, New York, Strip, Short Ribs, burger meat, Flank Steak, etc. That’s a lot of high-end meat for $6.50 per pound.
The nine-students in the three-hour Whole Hog Class ($200) break down a 180-pound Berkshire hog into primal cuts. Each student takes home twenty-plus pounds of premium pig, recipe suggestions and a reference chart. He also teaches Sausage and Advanced Sausage classes.
Farr has no storefront but sells on-line and in-person on Thursdays and Saturdays at the San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market. There’s freshly-made Apple Boudin Noir, a blood sausage dressed with an apple herb salad (chestnuts and crystallized ginger flavored his Christmas Boudin Noir.) Magnolia Beer Sausage, made with Fulton Valley Farms chicken, beer and mustard seeds is offered next to Lamb Merguez Sausage, heavily flavored with chiles, herb and homemade harissa, a hot chile-based condiment. You can have his 4505 Bacon-Studded Hotdog plain or amped up with kimchee, scallions, “money” sauce (soy-based spicy BBQ sauce) and homemade pork rinds. Cornmeal batter coats the spiced Fried Chicken Yum Yum sandwich served with coriander aioli and pickled jalapenos. His Dry-Aged Grass-Fed Cheeseburger served on a toasted homemade scallion and Parmesan sesame brioche bun actually put him on the map, as did his Chicharrones, pork rinds.
Like fruits and vegetables, animals have a time of year when they’re at their best, too, which is why Farr’s meat-based CSAs vary. CSAs, or Community-Supported Agriculture, are also referred to as “subscription farming.” You buy a “subscription” from a local farmer for produce, meat or dairy, and just like buying a magazine subscription every few weeks or so you receive a box full of whatever freshest on the farm. His Easter Rabbit CSA includes a Parsley, Lemon and Shallot Marinated Leg, Rabbit Loin Wrapped in Belly with Olives and Herbs, Rabbit Shoulder Confit on the Bone and Rabbit and Pork sausage with Green Garlic and White Wine and Rabbit Stock.
Culinary schools teach many things but not how to break down whole animals. Farr’s, self-taught, highly idiosyncratic style of butchery, leads to cuts like his four-inch Porterhouse (comprised of a New York strip and a tenderloin.) “It’s more like a roast than a steak,” he says “and no one does it that way.” He does because he intuitively feels that that’s what the meat should be. He caramelizes the big fat cap around, sears the meat and finishes it at a nice low and slow 250 to 275 degrees. Most chefs cook a Porterhouse with the bone on the bottom but Farr flips it so the bone sticks straight up becoming an indirect heat source that helps cook the meat internally.
He dry ages his meats to tenderize them and intensify the flavor of both meat and fat. Two weeks in, he pulls off those cuts that look right, that have a good fat percentage. The next week he cuts off twenty-one-day aged-beef, the next week, twenty-eight day. He takes only those parts of which have aged the best regardless of cut.
Traditional butchers look at an animal and determine which cuts will fill their meat cases. Farr looks at an animal and sees a three-dimensional flavor profile. As both chef and butcher Farr looks at an animal and sees a varied and almost endless array of tasty end products. It’s about looking at a carcass and letting his imagination fly. “It not about how I can sell it,” he says, “but how I can eat it.